UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Togo’s foreign minister wasn’t having any of it. He talked of an accelerating “African awakening,” of a resolve to “fight our own battles,” of a refusal to be banished to the children’s table while the musclebound great powers of the 20th century moved chess pieces around the board.
“Nobody is at the center of the world,” Robert Dussey said in French, his voice emphatic. “We don’t want to be relegated to the background as the world develops.”
Africa was Dussey’s subject. But he might have been one of any number of leaders speaking at the United Nations this past week — the voices of smaller nations that typically command less attention. They come, they air grievances and concerns, and then the oxygen is gobbled up by others — often the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
This year, though, Volydymyr Zelenskyy’s high-profile presence notwithstanding, things felt different. Top leaders of four of the five permanent member nations didn’t attend. Climate change helped amplify the concerns of smaller nations — not coincidentally, those most affected by it. And speech by speech, speaker by speaker, it became clear: On the international stage, other voices are beginning to rise — and to be heard.
“The General Assembly is always the biggest platform for countries that don’t get a spotlight,” says Anjali Dayal, an associate professor of international politics at Fordham University and an expert on the United Nations and other international organizations.
“But I think this year, we saw that more leaders were paying attention to the biggest constituency of U.N. countries — countries that are not big powers but that suffer the biggest consequences and very seldom get to cast the decisive vote,” she said.
Where is the momentum coming from? As with so many matters of import these days, there’s no single answer.
This year, one development helped clear space for some of the voices: the shallow attendance of major nations’ leaders. Of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members, only the United States, in the personage of President Joe Biden, spoke. The others — Russia, China, France and Britain — chose to send underlings, as did India and Canada.
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed called that “disappointing.” But it did mean that smaller nations and coalitions had more oxygen. They used some of it to advocate for a broader-based permanent membership of Security Council, the only U.N. body with the power to take military action and impose sanctions. Only its permanent members can veto resolutions, and frustration about that runs long and deep.
“The global governance architecture has not delivered the equity and inclusion that is required,” said Tandi Dorji, foreign minister of the Asian nation of Bhutan. He insisted representation on the council — which lacks a permanent member from Africa or Latin America — be broadened. “The increasing fragmentation, polarization, and growing inequity we witness in the world today only serve as an urgent cry for strengthening multilateralism.”
The structure of the United Nations, most countries agree, doesn’t fit the current global configuration. An organization built in the postwar mid-20th century to, in essence, prevent the nations who could destroy the world from doing so is not equipped to tackle the fragmentation afoot as the mid-21st century steams toward us with a rapidly evolving global power structure, speaker after speaker said.
Other factors, too, are helping softer voices grow louder. Exhibit A: climate change, which has hit the world’s poorest countries hardest — in particular, island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising waters. When the president of the island nation of Kirabati, Taneti Maamau, says his country is “experiencing intensifying severe drought and coastal inundation,” it’s not a secondhand account — and people are starting to listen.
“They’re banding together and saying, ‘We are the front line of world’s biggest problems, and the only way we get attention is if we band together.’ That has been remarkably effective in terms of voice,” Dayal said. “They’re saying, ‘Today it’s us. Tomorrow it’s going to be you.’”
The pandemic and the gradual recognition — finally — of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ yearslong insistence that a multilateral planet is the only way forward also are helping matters.